With our at times uncomfortably structured, and strangely studious, tour of Bhutan in the books we were airborne yet again, fairly quickly touching back down in the welcome humidity and familiar chaos of colossal Bangkok for, by rough calculations, somewhere around the 9th or 10th time. Not a city I’d ever want to spend a long stretch of time in, but one that has an undeniable charm and personality so that each time I’m surprised by the pleasurable nostalgia we feel every time we find ourselves using it as a transport hub. In addition to being one of the more convenient places from which to get basically anywhere in Southeast Asia, the “Big Mango” is also one of the best-equipped cities in the world for travellers to regroup, re-stock and reload for the next leg of a long trip. I can’t think of another place we’ve been that provides as many supplies, amenities and comforts in such convenient proximity at the bargain prices as you can find in Bangkok. Adventurous erotic foursomes involving conjoined twins, an angry headmaster and half of loaf of cold toast are obviously cathartic, but by no means all this vibrant, raucous city has to offer. Here is a brief, not necessarily exhaustive, list of essential Bangkok services we availed ourselves of in our 36-hour pit stop after 2 months of travel, much of which was spent at high altitudes, in cold temperatures, hiking vast distances and illogically choosing extremely uncomfortable sleeping scenarios.
- Humidity – many slow deep breaths of this blessedly humid, oxygen-heavy air. What’s that taste? Oh, just a thick slice of air pollution courtesy of 25 million people and their shitty vehicles. Who cares, though, it feels wet, and that’s all my lungs cared about by that point.
- Laundry – not only something desired for the sake of cleanliness and comfort, but in the case of some of our trekking gear (i.e. my pants, the ones plastered in mud/horse shit and so filled with grime as to stubbornly refuse folding), possibly a looming health and safety danger.
- Actual good food – we started with our long-time Thai cravings, obviously, pad thai for Laynni and “thick noodles with gravy” for me (which has a Thai name, of course, but one I’ve never managed to remember). We appreciate the effort Bhutan, you always give it the old college try Nepal, nice work China, if that was just a little more our thing, and what the hell was that supposed to be, Mongolia? Plus, mix in our first Western fast food in what felt like years (McDonald’s for lunch, pizza for supper) and you’ve got our own particular version of culinary heaven (missing only spicy spaghetti and mom’s cookies, but benefiting from the complete absence of poutine).
- Alcohol – I had recently gone all of October without a single drink, the first few weeks almost without noticing, the last because it seemed like when would I ever get that close to going a whole month without beer again? We started with a Chang, moved on to Leo, tossed a couple Singhas into the mix, found ourselves sitting with a guy from Kelowna and his much younger Cambodian girlfriend, back to Chang, became fascinated with the passing street life, a couple more Leos, check out that kid breakdancing, one last Leo please, hey I love this song, don’t you love this song? Where did these ones come from, no I think you’re wrong about that I didn’t order them, well maybe, where is the bathroom again? Oh right, I remember now, what did she say? Never mind, she’s gone, where’s the water? I’m so thirsty. When did we get back here? How did we get back here? Well, one of us must have been ok, we made it here, right? God, my head hurts.
- Greasy hangover breakfast – there is nothing like fried eggs and 85% fat bacon to stem the rising tide of nausea and trick your stomach into thinking it is ready to take on the day.
- Money – it is my understanding that Thai ATMs now universally charge 180 baht per foreign withdrawal ($1 Cdn is worth roughly 25 baht, so around $7), which is over and above the $5 Canadian banks charge us on the other end. So thanks to info we found in a very useful travel blog, we stocked up for our pending trip to the islands by going to a kiosk outside the actual branch and doing a VISA cash advance, getting 30,000 baht with no fee and, for some reason, not even the $5 added on back home (the yellow Krungsi Bank on the corner of Soi Rambuttri and Samsen). We just had to make sure we paid our VISA off immediately to avoid the astronomical interest charges. Then we went inside, told the teller we just took money out from the lady at the kiosk and asked for small change for some of the 1,000 baht bills we had been given. She quickly complied, and even had to be dialed back a bit on the amount so that we didn’t have to buy a metal suitcase with handcuffs attached to carry our huge stacks of small bills. Just like that, we were all set. We didn’t know it at the time, but that whole transaction would turn out to be the smoothest and most successful of our day.
- Sim card – for 200 baht I outfitted my phone for calling and texting despite no clear idea about who I might ever call or text, or who in all of Asia might ever care to call or text me – there was that one guy in Mongolia that one time, but I can’t remember his name, and I think he only knew the two sentences of English. For another 200 baht I got 1GB of data, so that under no circumstances would I have to spend more than 2-3 minutes (showers and bathroom breaks) unavailable for notifications of the presumably numerous overpaid, undertalented relief pitchers the Blue Jays will panic buy this offseason.
- Toiletry top-up – shampoo, soap, and stuff.
- Sarongs – because it feels like while in Thailand you must have an all-purpose sarong, right? Yet here we sit, 10 days later, and so far we have used them only to wrap up our clothes roll (not exactly mandatory), Laynni’s only to set our sweating water bottles on (a question of preference, really), and mine just once to cover the window gaps in our hut while implementing an act of genocide on a horde of wasps who seemed to be toying with the idea of establishing their new colony right next to my favourite lounging spot. So, at this point, the jury is still out on the sarong idea, although mine does have some pretty eye-catching flowers on it.
- Yoga mat – hot pink, and the thinnest and cheapest available in the entire yoga section of the Banglamphu mini-mall (which consisted of an additional 2 yoga mats.).
- Weigh ourselves – another very progressive feature of the Banglamphu mini-mall (really just a tiny, crowded 3-story building with a narrow alley full of food stalls next to it and much larger noodle section than we are accustomed to). For 1 baht each we learned that apparently our caloric intake of rice and gnarly chicken over the past 2 months was not proportionate to the amount of time we spent torturing ourselves up and down the side of mountains. Of course, the way my shorts kept falling down had already sort of hinted in that direction.
- Swimming trunks for me, jean shorts for Laynni – foreseeing no bodies of water enticing enough to need them during our previous stops around Asia, I thought it well worth spending $6 on a cheap new Thai pair instead of carrying some from home for 2 months. Laynni, on the other hand, has many bathing suits that combined take up about the same amount of space as a deck of cards, or maybe three large, used Kleenexes, so was already set in that department. Her wardrobe was, however, still lacking the necessary pizazz and underlying sleaziness required of travelling in Thailand, something she partially rectified with her new $4 shorts, but only to a small degree since she opted against buying them 3 sizes to small, the way homogenously pudgy backpackers prefer them these days.
- Haircut and shave – it had been 8 months since my last haircut and, outside of a few desultory trim jobs intended to ease the minds of immigration officials and bathroom attendants alike, the same since my last full shave. The look of fear in the young Thai girl’s eyes will haunt me forever, but to her credit she showed real heart and successfully fought through it. Now my only worries are whether my head has always been this tiny, and if its size is truly feasible in the long run, you know, from a health standpoint.
- Scan photos – we needed some online passport photos to apply for our visa to Myanmar, and the weird shadows I was getting when scanning with my phone were making me look even more like a recently-convicted death row prisoner than my haircut was.
- Print boarding passes – one of the joys of using discount airlines (in this case, Air Asia) is that although you can check-in online up to two weeks in advance, if you don’t print your boarding passes before you arrive they will be forced to charge you a printing fee at the airport that is more than it would cost to pick up an entire new wardrobe on Khao San Road, plus a piece of chicken.
- T-shirts – Laynni bought a few, one with comically proportioned giraffes, the others featuring various versions of feathers. I had planned to add one t-shirt and one tank top but, as you might expect based on my burly build and alarming recent weight loss, I was unable to find anything sleeveless large enough to fit comfortably over my barrel chest and chunky rib bones. To be expected, really.
- Taxi to airport – well, it’s not like we have a car.
- One more craving subdued – just before boarding our flight to Krabi we gorged on Subway (real bread! Meat that hasn’t spent a week in a warm truck! Or that is considered the devil’s work!) and I topped it off with a patented Subway double-chocolate cookie for dessert. Cue inappropriate climax, lethargic lounging, uneventful flight (in that order, obviously).
Now we are reaching the tail end of 10 days on Koh Siboya, an extremely quiet little island with an endless beach but no sand to speak of, and some really, really large lizards. Like, huge.